Alicia Keys was a young girl when she was first affected by HIV/AIDS.
"My mother's friend passed from AIDS," the singer, 34, tells PEOPLE. "I think I was 8 or 9 years old. I was old enough to know that he wasn't there anymore and to ask for him. My mother, of course, couldn't really explain to me what it meant."
Keys discovered the epidemic's impact first-hand over a decade later, when a visit to South Africa inspired her to co-found Keep a Child Alive in 2003.
In this week's PEOPLE, the "Girl on Fire" hitmaker shares her deep-rooted passion for the organization, which helps children and families in Africa and India cope with the devastating affects of HIV/AIDS.
While her favorite part of her work is connecting with the people Keep a Child Alive benefits – "There's so much love and I feel so welcomed," she says of her trips to clinics abroad – she's also a masterful philanthropist. The Black Ball, her organization's annual fundraiser in New York City, raised a whopping $2.4 million last year, and she's set to take it a step further at this year's event on Nov. 5. (Find out how to get tickets here.)
You were born in 1981, just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was gaining attention in the U.S. How has the evolution since then impacted you?
I have always related my age to the beginning of the awareness of the epidemic. There's been so much ignorance around the topic, especially in the beginning, when people were unaware of how it's contracted. There's this idea that you can't be friends with someone who has AIDS or can't choose to love someone who has AIDS. That's obviously becoming clearer now, but even still, the stigma and judgement around it is so saddening.
What sparked your passion and moved you into action when you co-founded Keep a Child Alive?
I befriended this really powerhouse, incredible woman named Leigh Blake, who has been an AIDS activist for over 30 years. Near the beginning of my career, she was getting Bono and a group of artists together to sing a remake of "What's Going On" that focused on the AIDS epidemic. I was brand new and they reached out to me, and I said of course. I can specifically pin that day to what changed everything; it was the beginning. She was the first person that started to open my eyes to what was happening globally with AIDS. I had barely left New York at that point, and so I wasn't aware.
Fast forward over a year later, MTV invited me to South Africa to do a program called Staying Alive, on which they talked about the AIDS issue. Leigh and I visited clinics where women were either pregnant or had just given birth to babies with HIV or AIDS. At the time, a lot of women didn't realize that if you are positive and you breast feed your baby, your baby will contract it. The moms just wanted medicine to keep them alive. That was the first time as a 20 year old that I was aware of the injustice. I thought, "How can something be available, but you can't have it because you're poor?" I just felt like that was a death sentence. That's what outraged me and motivated me. When I came back, I was never the same.
To read the entire interview with Alicia Keys, visit PEOPLE.com. For more on Alicia Keys' fight against HIV/AIDS, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.